Jules was watching an Australian spy movie. He’d finished the roasted chicken an hour earlier and was now back on his couch watching some spy movie on Netflix. No Sixers game tonight. He didn’t have any specific interest in the movie, but it was the first thing that appeared when he’d hit the Netflix button on his remote.
Jules didn’t take extra time to choose things. He’d decided on that approach after reading a book about the paradox of choice his friend Leonard had sent him 20 years ago. It was a problem he’d noticed around middle age, when consumer choices exploded with the rise of the middle class, the increase in expendable income in the 1980s and 90s, cable television, the advertising boom and then finally the internet.
Supermarket shopping was just one example. Fifty versions of mustard. Twenty types of peanut butter. When he really cared about consuming the product, like coffee, he took his time, chose carefully and then examined his preferences after trying the new variety. But most of the time, he found the familiar item and tossed it in the cart.
People needed to be told they were eating something special. That they were watching the best thing on that night. “Must see TV!” People wanted to believe they’d made the right choice, when in fact, there was no “right” choice. Just too many choices. There was no NBC commercial for “Mustn’t See TV!” even though the networks often created garbage.
When it came to escaping from the quiet of an empty house, and he wasn’t in the mood to read, Jules put on the television. If the Sixers were on, he was watching the game. If not, he chose a documentary or something on the Netflix button. Sometimes Reva sent him recommendations. She usually chose indie films or travel shows.
Jules often picked the first thing that popped up, pressed play and gave himself the first 20 minutes. After that, he decided whether to keep going or turn it off and read in bed. The routine made it all more manageable.
Tonight, Jules was unusually awake, despite the fact it was approaching 10 p.m. The spy movie was mildly entertaining. The chief spy was physically disabled. He was in a wheelchair. He was more of a consultant than a spy. A Gandalf-like character, who tilted his silver head, hair flowing in all directions and then offered concise nuggets of wisdom to the younger spies.
Then, the movie shifted its focus to the younger spies, out in the field, hustling through airports and subways in Thailand and Japan. One of the guys lost the trail of a criminal, and sat slumped over on the subway bench and said, “It is what it is.”
Jules turned off the movie.
“It is what it is,” was one of the phrases Jules couldn’t tolerate. This was complicated. People tossed around unoriginal thoughts all the time. Language was made up of universal sayings that people repeated for centuries, that’s what made language effective, the fact that thoughts could be easily conveyed and understood.
But Jules held disdain for this phrase because it was a way of short-circuiting introspection. If Socrates’ phrase, “An unexamined life isn’t worth living” was a way to remind ourselves to consider what things were and how we related to each other, then “It is what it is,” was a way out of the ocean of relationships. A person could climb up out of the water, legs dripping, and stand on dry land, ignoring the problems in the ocean.
In the movie, the young spy simply wanted to avoid the feeling of failure. His job was to trail the bad guy and he’d failed. He was young enough that he might switch careers and become a real estate agent.
Jules had met too many people who refused to stay in that ocean and work on their difficult relationships. It was what he loved about Violet. She was a family therapist before retiring. She knew how to listen and how to express her needs. Her curiosity was contagious.
When Violet popped into his mind, Jules felt that familiar ache. He went to his computer and opened up the folder of pictures and videos of their time together. The house was so different without her. Moving to Santa Barbara together was their dream. It was the last phase of his life and it was bound to be the most pleasant and stable. And then she was gone. In an instant. That terrible morning, walking out of the library. That madman with a pickup truck.
Jules brewed a cup of chamomile and sat down to watch Violet and remember what his life was like only 10 years ago. The tea steamed up his glasses. He took them off to wipe them and found tears welling up in the corner of his eyes.